Funk: Let’s use COVID-19 lessons to revamp public education system
A San Jose student is pictured during a distance learning class in this file photo.

    When I reflect on the last eight months of leading a school district during this pandemic, I think about a quote from Rahm Emanuel, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that: it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

    All of us in education have had to take the complex system of everyday in-person learning and the supports we offer at our schools and move to an online experience. This took a herculean effort on the part of all public schools across the country.

    The opportunity that we cannot ignore and allow to go to waste is eventually when schools reopen to full-time, in person learning we simply do not go back to how we have always done things. We embrace this as an opportunity to learn how to better serve our students and community.

    In today’s world, it is critical that our children learn how to use and master modern technology, think critically, communicate across a variety of platforms, work collaboratively and be creative with the ability to quickly adapt. In East Side Union High School District (ESUHSD), we call this our Graduate Profile. Other districts may refer to it as a learner profile.

    We are demanding teachers to change their role and evolve in their craft from a “sage on the stage” to more of a “facilitator of learning.” Students are presented with complex tasks, which require them to demonstrate their learning through a process of inquiry, analysis and inference, and communicate like a scientist, mathematician, historian, artist, literary critic, etc.

    Our vision as a district continues to be focused on building equitable communities where all learners are welcomed as they are, strengths and areas of growth for all learners are known and supported, adults positively respond to the social-emotional, wellness and academic needs of all learners, and all learners engage with tasks that develop the strategic thinking skills for full participation in their local communities and the global society.

    In ESUHSD, our block schedule during distance learning has provided opportunities for teachers to identify key standards, go deeper in their coverage of those standards and allow students to demonstrate their learning in nontraditional ways. Our schedule also provides built in tutorial and advisory periods and allow for ongoing professional development.

    However, our current schedule would not qualify under the traditional education code that requires a specific amount of daily, synchronous instruction and 180 instructional days. School districts need to continue to have the current flexibility when we return to “normal” so that the lessons learned and the best practices developed during distance learning can be incorporated into a new paradigm of teaching and learning.

    These arbitrary instructional minutes and school days have been around since the 1970s. This is a structural change that has been a long time coming.

    I keep hearing about learning loss that has taken place during this pandemic. In fact, SB 98 requires school districts to include learning loss mitigation into our plans to support or “fix” students that have fallen behind. What are the old structural guide posts that people are using to determine this learning loss? We are going on our second year of no state tests. We know that the SAT is a biased exam that favors affluent families and well-educated families. These structural artifacts are part of the system that produces what it is designed to produce.

    It is time to change how we measure the effectiveness of schools and the growth of student learning.

    I am the first to admit that there is no replacing in-person learning and the need to socialize and support the mental health needs of our students.

    I question the negative impact to learning during this pandemic, particularly to high school students because of the civic education that this pandemic has provided. We have experienced the profound movement of Black Lives Matter, a historic presidential election and the aftermath, and learning all about the impact this pandemic has had on our personal lives, the economy, international connectedness and the importance of science and using data to inform our decisions and policy making.

    We do not need to “fix” our students when we return. We need to take this opportunity to build the structures that allow for relationships between adults and students to take place. Even the most experienced teacher does not have the time to truly get to know 160+ students unless we truly change the structure of the day, week and the school year.

    Our students need the time to explore the areas that interest them, double down in the areas they thrive in and provide the time and space to build community, address social and racial injustice issues, support their mental health needs and truly develop strategic thinking skills for full participation in their local communities and the global society.

    We need to fully revamp how the educational system responds to the needs of our students. Every system has gaps and students have unique needs that need to be addressed. We have created a system over the last hundred years that produces exactly what it is designed to produce; a system that produces inequality and disproportionality, particularly when it comes to students of color, students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, students who have a learning disability and students who are either English language learners, foster youth or homeless.

    We need to build a system that meets students where they are, provides them the supports they need to be successful and provides the educational staff the time and resources needed to be the very best educators they can be. We need a systems approach to revamp meeting the gaps that our children have when they enter our system and as they progress through school.

    If the governor and the Legislature were willing to suspend the education code during the pandemic and provide the extra resources needed to meet the challenges of COVID-19 during distance learning, then why not take the same approach to education after the pandemic? Educators have been requesting the tools needed to revamp the education system. Now is the perfect time to give us the tools that we need to make the necessary impactful changes needed in education.

    What has transpired in the recent past are charter schools. Charter schools have not changed the education system. They have created a more inequitable school system by eliminating certain parts of the education code that non-charter public schools must follow. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    We need to change the entire public school system. We need less structured daily instructional minutes, a longer school year, a new system of accountability, new measurements of student learning and the financial resources that provide every student the supports they need to thrive in school.

    Let’s not waste a good crisis by going back to the good old days of public education pre-COVID-19. The time is right. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

    San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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